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Sowing Peace in Times of War

November 3rd, 2006


  • “It gives us hope to see you.
  • You are part of the peace network
  • That helps transform the world.”
  • On October 31st, I returned from a ten-day visit to Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena is a beautiful historic city on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. Beside tourist hotels and the historic section, people live in abject poverty. At times the contrast was overwhelming. We spent three days visiting displaced communities in the states of Sucre and Bolivar. These people suffered massacres, disappearances and large-scale displacement by action of the paramilitary death squads working closely with the Colombia military. The displaced people are mainly small farmers and long to return to their farms and homes.
  • In the midst of the violence and displacement, we met with people who are organized and working for peace. These people of faith live with hope and courage and are doing all they can to be able to return to their farms. Ricardo Esquivia told us “This is a people of faith. The church is a place for people to come to be transformed.” Ricardo, along with three Catholic bishops and a number of Protestant churches has organized the Foundation of Peace and Justice. The foundation has received funding from the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program as well as from the European Union. They fund micro development projects and encourage people to participate in the democratic process.
  • You may have heard in the media that the situation in Colombia is getting better. The reality is that the picture is not so rosy. War continues in Colombia, and the Bush Administration continues to push for a military solution to the conflict. Many of the displaced people we met fear for their lives. The paramilitary death squads continue to threaten and kill people. Many people told us that they may have turned in some of their guns but clearly the organization has not been dismantled. The guerillas belonging to the FARC live and move in nearby hills and have planted numerous land mines.
  • Ricardo Esquivia, a lawyer, and former director of Justapaz – a Mennonite Justice and Peace group met us upon our arrival. He told us, “This delegation is like the coming together of the world-wide faith community. Your presence is important to us! You may not be aware of how important these international delegations are to our ability to work here in the midst of this tension. You are seeds of hope. You are the beautiful face, the hopeful face of a country that supports war here in Colombia.”
  • The slaves came through Cartagena. Seventy eight percent of the people live in poverty and of these 43% live in misery. Sixty % of the people in the section of the country called Montes de Maria are of African descent. During the past five years this part of Colombia was devastated by violence by both the guerillas but much of it at the hands of paramilitary death squads working closely with the Colombian Army. In the mainly Afro Colombian town of San Onofre alone, 3,000 people were assassinated. During our ten days in Colombia, we met with man groups of displaced people.
  • There seem to be two different points of views within the armed services. One group says, “We can not win the war by respecting human rights.” For many years, the Army and the paramilitaries have worked together. The army has used the so-called Self-defense Forces or paramilitaries to carry out its dirty work through massacres and assassinations. Another part of the army believes that they must protect the people and attack both the guerillas and the paramilitaries. In some regions of the country, the commanders have good relationships with the people while in others they use the paramilitaries to attack them.
  • In Colombia, we were told; we need to create spaces of trust and restorative transformation. When we do not have trust we cannot move forward.
  • The United States government should stop supporting war in Colombia. Continued US military assistance will not end the war but only increase it. The US government should invert it’s current funding and give 80% to support social development and 20% to support the military and the police.
  • People told us that the government has abandoned the people. They have done very little in terms of social investment. There has not been a sincere effort to create peace. “The government should support citizens and their rights. If there is social justice, we will attain peace.” When we asked about the proposed Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia we were told, “We fear that the proposed free trade agreement will further weaken the farm sector and thus only increase the conflict. Free Trade will increase poverty not lessen it.
  • The group of 18 people who formed our Witness for Peace delegation ranged in age from 22-82. We supported one-another in this journey – cried together and gave witness that we stand in solidarity with our Colombian brothers and sisters. We returned home determined to do all in our power to stop US funding for the war in Colombia and to urge our government to fund drug treatment here in the United States and to fund projects of life such as development projects and support for small farmers.

    Gail Phares
    WFP SE